Dammit, Coal’s Back

Dammit, Coal’s Back
Photo: Getty Images, Getty Images

The dirtiest fossil fuel is enjoying a renaissance in the U.S., but it could usher in a dark age for the climate.

The nation’s coal-fired power output is expected to surge for the first time in years, the Energy Information Administration said on Monday. By the end of this year, the U.S. will ramp up its coal production by 22%. That marks the first year-over-year uptick since 2014.

U.S. coal use has been in steady decline for years due to rising prices, cheap natural gas and renewables, and, to some extent, concerns about its environmental impact. Even former President Donald Trump, who promised to end the war on coal and rolled back dozens of regulations to benefit the industry, couldn’t fight those market forces.

In 2019, as the cost of fossil gas dropped to record lows, coal usage fell to its lowest level since 1964. The following year, the economic fallout of the covid-19 pandemic dealt the coal sector another heavy blow. Experts predicted it would “never recover.”

But now, the price of fossil gas is soaring to record highs, causing a global energy crunch felt from Britain to China. The EIA expects costs will stay inflated through the rest of the year. Since the price of coal has been comparatively stable, producers are flocking to it.

The U.S. isn’t the only country that’s increasing its coal usage to avoid paying premiums for gas. Other nations like China and India have been calling on coal mines to increase their output, too. Last week, the International Energy Agency issued a warning that 2021 is “seeing the second‐largest annual increase in CO2 emissions in history,” and an increase in coal-fired power is a major factor.

Coal is among the dirtiest forms of energy on Earth. Of all fossil fuels, it emits the most carbon dioxide per unit of energy. The surge in U.S. coal use is a blow to the planet. The timing of the report is also a nightmare, coming less than two weeks before world leaders — including President Joe Biden — are slated to meet in Glasgow for United Nations climate talks. It shows that pledges to cut emissions are largely ineffective without strong policies to curtail fossil fuel use.

Besides heating up the planet, burning coal emits other harmful pollutants like sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, both of which have been linked with skin, nose, eye, and throat irritation as well as respiratory and cardiovascular illness.

Thankfully, the EIA forecasts that this increase, in the U.S. at least, is temporary. “Although rising natural gas prices have resulted in more U.S. coal-fired generation than last year, this increase in coal generation will most likely not continue,” it said, forecasting a 5% drop in coal use in 2022 as more dirty power plants are wound down and gas prices start to fall. Still, the climate crisis is too dire for even a short-lived uptick in coal output to be acceptable. A recent study found that the world must keep nearly all the world’s coal reserves in the ground if we want to keep warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit).

The increase in coal-fired power generation shows the dangers of leaving the energy transition to the fickle market. Though it seemed market forces were issuing a death blow to coal, they clearly weren’t enough to stop nations from returning to it when gas prices soared. And it’s not as though returning to gas once prices fall is a win by any stretch of the imagination. Though fossil gas is less polluting per unit of energy produced than coal, it’s still deadly from a climate and health perspective. In 2019, it was the leading contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions increasing. If we keep burning it, the planet will burn, too.

The choice shouldn’t be between coal and gas. Instead, global leaders should be winding down fossil fuel plants of all kinds and investing heavily in bringing renewable power online. Though investments in renewable energy are increasing, it’s not happening quickly enough to avert severe damage to the climate. The world needs more renewable power and more transmission and storage. As the new EIA report shows, relying on market forces alone to get us there is a disaster waiting to happen.